Dammed Creativity

Benjamin Franklin had little free time in his old age.  He complained of this cram-packed-with-politics schedule to close friends.  The very new United States– still fighting to survive needed his diplomacy, wit, wisdom and time.  And nobody else could fill his shoes. His science experiments lay unfinished collecting dust in his backyard laboratory.  Like some homeowners in my neighborhood are house poor–  great salaries funneled straight to paying the mortgage and fixing up the house,  Benjamin Franklin was energy poor. State-building sucked every last bit of Franklin’s remarkable energy–  and he felt his soul shrink.

A few days ago, my eight-year-old son asked us all at breakfast, What is the worse possible thing you can imagine happening? I immediately thought of losing my child to scurvy or a car accident.  But my six-year-old daughter said,  Oh.  I think living your entire life and never having done what you were meant to do–  without doing what you love. That would be terrible.

My daughter is right on.  I’m so glad she can say this out loud without a second thought.

But how could you die without ever reaching your potential?  For Franklin a new nation claimed his time, thus suppressing his exuberant creative pursuit.  But energy-claimers are most often historic only in your wildest dreams– masses of urgent incoming e-mails, houses to build, fortunes to lay out for the future. You could die without ever cracking your creative potential by failing to ever decide to start.  You could give up attending to your dreams when the phone starts ringing or when your wife complains about the yard.  If you must choose between keeping bargains you never made or owning your energy and creative potential– well, I think you can guess what I’d say.

Having a choice at all, is a privilege.  If you have no food, many sick children, a husband who beats you, no shelter and no work in sight,  your choices are much, much smaller.  But my guess is,  if you have time enough to read these words– you have at least some (education, time, money, space) options for creation.  The French philosopher Ernest Renan said,

The simplest schoolboy is now familiar with truths for which Archimedes would have sacrificed his life.

Ignored creativity–  no matter how plentiful or unruly at the start or how honorable the competition, dries up. And once you decide you’ve got to create come hail or high water, what you do with the truths you know–  that is what makes you Creative or not.





How about you?  Is your creativity still dammed up inside you?

Living the Creative Life (Part III): David Bohm on Being Original

How do you live the creative life? I’ve gleaned tips from some of my favorite Creators. For five days I’m writing about these insightful suggestions.  Yesterday I wrote about Vitruvius’ Tips for Architects.

The philosopher John Locke tells parents to answer every question a child asks, respecting her intellect;  that is, truthfully and patiently. What if this gets annoying after a while?  Locke suggests imagining yourself arriving in Japan (you don’t speak the language or know anything about the culture) for the very first time. In Japan, an English-speaking guide awaits you.  You have a million questions– silly and irrelevant to a native, but crucial to you. You, Locke says, are your child’s guide to this new-to-her world.  Be nice.

Three centuries later, the father of Quantum Theory, David Bohm says original and creative work requires watching the world with newcomer’s eyes.  You start life with newcomer’s eyes and constantly discover things new-to-you. Bohn says,

[A child] spends his first few years in a wonderfully creative way, discovering all sorts of things that are new to him.

As a child grows older, however, learning takes on a narrower meaning… So his ability to see something new and original gradually dies away.  And without [this ability] there is evidently no ground from which anything can grow.

In his book On Creativity, Bohn explains the creative process, which is the same regardless of discipline. His ideas apply to all. Check out his tips on how to be original:

  1. Look to learn something totally new with your work.
  2. Pay attention.
  3. Remain alert and aware.
  4. Court sensitivity to changes.
  5. Mistakes and failures are part of the process.  Only people who already know the outcome of something (and are therefore mechanical and not creative) don’t make mistakes.
  6. Note differences between what actually happens and what is inferred from previous knowledge.
  7. Expect to overturn comfortable ideas.
  8. Modify your ideas and your art by what you learn.

As I finish this post, I’m wondering where to turn my eyes to see things new-to-me.  But Bohn explains this isn’t quite possible.  You can’t become truly creative by process.  You can only get close.  Originality cannot be planned.  It is, well, original.  That isn’t very inspiring.  But no worries— I can at least answer all my kids’ questions until I come up with my own.

Eating a Flashlight and Sucking Up Dust

My nine-month-old baby is definitely in the oral stage of cognitive development.  Just before sunrise this morning when she and I were the only ones awake in our dark house, I handed her a small, flashlight to play with.  I thought she would like watching the projected light move by her direction. But she didn’t give a hoot about the light’s movements–she just stuffed the thing, rather awkwardly, light side in, into her wide-open little mouth. She tests everything this way.   She’s learned puke-green pea puree from a baby food jar is bad.  If she sees it coming–she purses her lips tight.   She’s decided pretzel sticks sprinkled with sea salt are worth holding tightly.  It’s like her mouth is directly connected to her brain’s dopamine generators.  When an object or texture feels good in her mouth, dopamine is released in her growing brain and the moment turns into a pleasurable memory–an Invariant Representation or hook for pleasurable experiences to come.  When something is gross enough to spit out there’s no such rush of dopamine.  The momentary displeasure turns into a different sort of learned experience–knowing what to avoid.  Dopamine provides teaching signals to parts of the brain responsible for acquiring new behavior.

My baby’s dopaminergic engine is running on turbo at this time in her young life.  Her capacity to recover from downers is mythological, even phoenician.  She doesn’t stay down after a displeasure, no matter how intense.  She just flies again into the unknown assuming new pleasures and new life.  Creative people retain–or in some cases re-acquire, this ability to learn from mistakes and move on, fast. The more tries, the better.  Dopamine island hopping.

Several years ago, I finally bought a vacuum cleaner I liked.  It has no bags to empty and sucks up popcorn or long hair without a glitch even years after its first use.  Marine engineer and architect, James Dyson, created a better vacuum by using the same cyclone technology used in saw mills to increase his vacuum’s suction power lifespan to–virtually endless.  Dyson, like most inventors, first made a garage-full of very bad devises.  He could not stay depressed about mistakes for long but he did not repeat mistakes either.  The dopamine engine in Dyson’s brain worked overtime signaling and directing towards his final “perfect” vacuum system. Dyson says,

I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure.

Babies move on quickly, as do successful inventors.  But when creative-types linger over mistakes rather than moving forward quickly, they end up parched for lack of dopamine.  Then learning from mistakes is no longer natural or endurable.  James Dyson says,

I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.

Counting mistakes?!  Rocket on!  I’ve made several just posting this blog.  But who cares, I’m taking flight all over again.

Talk to you tomorrow when I’ll need it again.

Creativity Requires Innocence

A while ago, I stood on my front lawn with a friend as we watched our children play freeze tag. The children ran glowing, even glistening a little.  They fell and laughed easily and often. I smiled and said,

They’re so fun.  I just want to laugh with them.

My friend, usually an upbeat person, wasn’t smiling now. She’d been through a wicked divorce years ago and the one daughter from that broken marriage chose to live with the dad. I didn’t know the full story but when I glanced at her I thought she must be thinking of her missing girl. Keeping her eyes on the playing children, she  said,

The most important thing is to keep children innocent.

For years I saw innocence, especially in children, more like ignorance. I believed my friend was wrong. Innocence may be bliss, I thought, but it is also a shallow state of living.

The ignorant have no tools for Creation. Highly Creative people are not ignorant.

But ignorance and innocence are not the same.  Ignorance is lack of knowledge.  Innocence is lack of guilt. You can lock up your children or put Kung-Fu Panda on the screen over and over and never read them a single classic to keep them ignorant. But keeping children innocent, is a bit more tricky. Childlike innocence is maintained by keeping mistakes in proper perspective.

Highly Creative people keep this childlike innocence of personal guilt over mistakes. For Creators spilled milk is just what you clean up to move on, not what you ruminate over. Mistakes are part of ordinary Creation and clean up times come often. Albert Einstein said,

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Creation in any form is about the new, so mistakes are inevitable. When childhood mistakes are routine and glossed over and left as the unfocused background to life, mistakes aren’t scary.

Guilt over mistakes paralyzes Creative thought. I now see what my friend did long ago, keeping children innocent is a gift to ensure their future Creativity.

*Life can get scary at times for grown-ups and for children, still guilt need not squash the future.  To read more about Creativity and Fear see my post: Don’t Protect from Terror, Love Through It.